New Orleans Jazz


When I lived in Chicago, one of my friend’s father worked as a bartender at Mr. Kelly’s, the famous Rush Street nightclub known for headlining the big name jazz groups. My friend would occasionally arrange for us to be snuck in the back of the club, allowing me to develop my first appreciation for this genre of music. Following my move to New Orleans for medical school, I found myself in jazz heaven.

Jazz music was originally dance music. It wasn’t until recent years that jazz became more a passive, listening experience. There are a number of different styles of jazz characteristic of New Orleans, of which Dixieland is but one variety. Each parish (district) had some individual outstanding musicians who developed a signature sound, later copied elsewhere by others. From Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton to Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, New Orleans sent its musical missionaries around the world. Still hosting the annual Jazz Festival, the city retains much of its long jazz heritage. (I met Woody Allen in town for the Festival, as he was sitting on a bench with his clarinet in front of St. Louis Cathedral, talking with my roommate at the time, who was also a clarinet player.)

By the time I moved there, the iconic Basin Street clubs had closed, but Bourbon Street in the French Quarter offered numerous jazz venues supported by both tourists and locals. Preservation Hall, founded in 1961, provided a place for old jazz artists to work, as well as conserve several classic musical traditions. No more than an old storefront just off Bourbon Street with open windows and a small stage, visitors could stand outside or come in, sit on wooden benches, and listen to leather skinned African-American musicians with mostly white hair play a style of jazz that harkened back to the beginning of the century.  During my time, there was no admission, though visitors were encouraged to place some money into the open music cases on stage. Next door, Pat O’Brien’s Pub, home of the famous Hurricane (a rum based concoction in a tall souvenir glass) offered two well-seasoned ladies sitting at twin pianos playing popular sing along music for tourists. The city allowed the consumption of alcohol in open containers all throughout the Quarter, guaranteeing a rowdy scene for visitors.

Most establishments kept wide open windows, hoping to entice passersby to come in for some cool watered down drinks and hot music. If you were a poor student, you could still stand on the sidewalk and enjoy the performance of talented musicians. The hotels offered balconies from which guests could partake of the non-stop revelries on the street below, or invite someone up to join their own party. For those who needed to study, Bourbon Street provided both a temptation as well as a source of much needed relief from the pressures of school.

Jazz music was, and is, the rhythm of the Crescent City, whether it be the marching bands during Mardi Gras parades, the music of parties in City Park, or the sounds of the traditional African-American funeral parade, with family, neighbors and friends dancing and twirling umbrellas behind the hearse on their way to the cemetery. Wherever you go in the City That Care Forgot, the Saints Are Marching In!

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Anatomy Was Gross


The first year of medical school traditionally started with Gross Anatomy, which consisted of a semester during which a team of four medical students were assigned to a cadaver, and tasked with learning its anatomy through a process of guided dissection. (This has changed substantially in many schools, with the dissection already performed for the students, while some schools have developed an organ system approach by, for example, studying the anatomy, physiology, pathology and pharmacology of the heart as one module.) During my time at Tulane, we had to perform our own dissection.

Seeing a dead human being up close was a new experience for most of us; one filled with a mixture of trepidation, fascination, awe, mild repulsion, and existential challenge. We were all instructed that the body in front of us was once a person just like us, who had a family, and who deserved our respect. Some had willed their bodies to science and for our educational benefit, while others represented those who died without families to claim them. Their bodies at that time in history could be used for this purpose.

Cadavers were kept in stainless steel rectangular receptacles on a table that could be raised or lowered back into the box, and covered up. Formaldehyde was the universal preservative used to keep the bodies from decomposing, as well as serving as a powerful disinfectant. Its overpowering smell would soon permeate the clothes we wore to the lab, as well as even our hair. No amount of washing ever completely got rid of its particular odor, so all of us threw away the garments we wore to lab once the course was over. Freshman medical students were readily recognizable at a distance by the pungent smell we exuded. No one wanted to ride in the elevator with us during this time in our studies.

Doing proper dissection required a great deal of time, as we had to be careful not to destroy any tissue without properly identifying the necessary components of organs, nerves, blood vessels, as well as the relationship they bore to all the surrounding structures. This was invaluable training for those who would eventually become surgeons or radiologists, especially as we saw, looking at different bodies, that there can be important and sometimes subtle variations in the way our bodies are put together. Some of us are gifted with an intuitive understanding of spatial geometry, but most of us had to rely on brute memory to recall the proper location of an anatomic part and its relationships to its surroundings.

Initially, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of memorization required. My particular situation was made worse by my lab partner going AWOL after the first two weeks of class, leaving me chronically behind in dissection, which was a shared assignment. He was a good looking blond athlete from Holland, Michigan, with a doctor father. Pushed into going to medical school by his family, he just disappeared one day, and I never saw him again. It would be an understatement to say I was stressed out. I would likely have flunked out were it not for the kindness of one of my professors. He was a young Scotsman from Edinburgh, only a few years older than me, fond of smoking a pipe ( a good way to deal with the formaldehyde odor) and telling dirty limericks, as we stayed up until midnight catching up on my assignments. I thought at the time I would always maintain contact with him, but alas, like most students, my attention was easily drawn in other directions, and I allowed our friendship to wither with time.  I regret not staying in touch as I promised, as he really went way above the call of duty to help me. As karma would have it, I would suffer the same fate from most of my students once I became a teacher.

Back in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Life Magazine had a feature called “Life Goes to a Party”. One of these Life articles featured the annual soiree thrown by the freshman medical class at Tulane at the completion of the Gross Anatomy course, appropriately titled “The Cadaver Ball.” Many local hotels refused to let us return following the raucous activities of prior year classes. We eventually secured a venue, but not without a hefty damage deposit. Finishing the challenges of the course was not unlike a military unit in the war that developed inseparable bonds, brought together by common suffering. The Beatles had just come out with their hit, “Hey, Jude” which played often in the lab while we worked, and it became our class song. The party was a smash hit, and no one was left dead afterward. I’ll leave your imaginations to visualize the questionable humor of gross anatomy decorations. If any of you are really interested, go to the library and find the Life Magazine article on the Cadaver Ball. The details and photos are all there. Thankfully, some faces are barely recognizable.

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The White Coat Ceremony


Almost all medical schools in the country have a traditional white coat ceremony, the first day of school when incoming students are presented their white coat, which they will wear throughout their careers. The occasion is typically marked by speeches from the dean and prominent faculty, informing those being invested with this symbol of their future profession the meaning of what it is to be a doctor along with a history of the great healers of the past and present on whose achievements and sacrifices the profession’s reputation rests. In the history of medicine, being a doctor was not looked upon as a job but as a calling, that imbued its followers with special privileges as well as distinct obligations.

As recited in the Hippocratic Oath (which has recently been modernized for our current age) we who were joining this profession (considered noble before doctors were reduced to being called “providers” and patients to “customers”) were expected to follow a strict code of ethics, to honor our teachers, and to pass on our knowledge to upcoming generations. Hippocrates admonished his followers to treat often, cure sometimes, and care always. Our coats would identify us as members of this august community, and it was a badge we were all excited to receive, even as we were told how arduous of a journey lay ahead of us. I remember the Dean telling us that we would learn a lot of what were considered “facts”, but half the “facts” taught to us would turn out to be wrong. Unfortunately he, nor anyone else at the time, could tell us which half those were; we’d have to figure it out ourselves over time.

Unlike other schools, Tulane did not give students white coats to wear, because we had yet to earn this coveted badge of our profession. Instead, they gave us long, tan colored coats with the school’s logo on the front pocket. In this way, patients could not accidentally mistake us for doctors, and easily recognize us for the students we were. However, almost all the poor patients at Charity, our primary teaching hospital, would call us “doctors” even though we always introduced ourselves as medical students, and even the wealthier, mostly white patients at the private hospitals through which we also rotated gave us the same honorific. This I thought at the time was a function of Southern politeness until I saw the same behavior in Southern California during my postgraduate training.

Despite sullying of the medical practitioners reputation in recent years (due to changes in the culture of being a doctor brought on by advanced technologies and our own bad behaviors, along with the takeover by government and large corporations of our lives) and fed by negative media depiction of physicians, most patients still hold their own doctors in high esteem. This is the reason that chiropractors, optometrists, nutritionists, as well as those who peddle cures on commercials insist on wearing a white coat. In a study done not too long ago, patients were asked to rate their interaction with a physician, one of whom wore a white coat with a shirt and tie, while the other wore street clothes with a sport shirt and open collar. The information they gave the patients were identical, but those who received the advice form the one on the white coat said they were much more likely to follow the given instruction than the patients of the one in street clothes. The coat remains a powerful symbol.

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In the Beginning – A Medical Student’s Life


To provide housing for its medical students in downtown New Orleans, Tulane purchased the old Jung Hotel on Canal Street, just a two block walk from the medical school, and converted it to one bedroom apartments, each one furnished with a couch in the living room that separated from the kitchenette by a Formica table with built-in bookcase over its top. This table also doubled as a study desk, in addition to a small student desk in the living room. Whoever designed the units made efficient use of the available space, building a shelf over the entrance door for more storage space.   A bathroom with a shower opened from the bedroom that just barely fit two single beds, and shared a wall with the kitchen area. The building was renamed Hawthorne Hall, and was home for my first two years in the city.

During Mardi Gras, the big parades all turned below our windows on Canal Street, so we had grandstand seats for the festivities, whether we wanted them or not. Across the small side street where many of our windows faced, there was a local dive bar that played loud music until 4 AM each morning, much to the chagrin of those of us trying to study. Not infrequently, some of the drunks would spill out on the street below us, shouting profanities at each other. I lived on the 10th floor of the 14 story building. One night, when the drunks were particularly loud and obnoxious, my roommate, after yelling down several times to have them curtail the noise, got fed up and dumped a large wastebasket of water out the window on the crowd below. One of the drunks started screaming in response, “I’m gonna kick your ass, you s.o.b., I know where you are! You’re at one, two, three, four…You’re at one, two, three, four…You’re at one, two, three, four…” We were saved, either by his alcohol level, or inability to count beyond four.

The building had one of those old elevators that required an operator with a lever to make the stops on each floor. The flat rooftop provided space for some folding chairs and a couple of chaise lounges for us to get rays, weather permitting. Of the twenty of us on my floor, none had any cooking skills, and since I was hard strapped for money, I offered them a deal. I would cook for us if they would pay for and buy the food (lacking a car, and having no supermarket within walking distance was a problem for me.) I never told them I had never cooked, and I bluffed eight of the twenty on my floor into taking me up on the deal. My mom and my grandmother were both excellent cooks. I knew what good food was supposed to taste and look like, and I had enough chemistry to know how to follow a recipe. I would call home and obtain a week’s worth of recipes, then give a shopping list to our nightly dinner group, who procured the necessary items. I not only learned to cook this way, but also discovered I enjoyed the process. An unexpected benefit was my status as the chef gave me a level of popularity I hadn’t previously enjoyed. My only disaster occurred the first time I cooked rice. I couldn’t believe that the amount of rice the recipe called for was so small, so I added more. It took me a long time to clean up the mess!

Most of the people in my class did not know each other before the start of school, and we had no local connections or much free time to meet people. One of the sororities on the main campus posted a flyer offering to fix up any medical student with a date for the upcoming Tulane football game. Many of us, including me, signed up for this opportunity. I called the young woman who was to be my blind date, and arranged to meet her at the sorority house prior to the game. She had a sweet voice, and I looked forward to meeting her. My room-mate wasn’t going, though he reminded me that in the South the dress code for football games included a sport coat and a tie. I thought he was pulling my leg, as I found him to be quite a joker, but other class members confirmed his advice.

My date turned out to be a young sophomore, and I spent a good part of the not very exciting game (Tulane was getting shellacked) trying to find topics to keep the conversation moving. The one interest we seemed to share was food. She told me she knew a good place to eat that wasn’t very expensive not far from Hawthorne Hall, and offered to drive us there after the game. She told me that I would be way overdressed in a tie and jacket, and suggested we stop back for me to change. I called my roommate to tell him we were coming by, as I didn’t want to surprise him with unexpected company. When we got back to my room, I tried to open the door, and found the security chain had been deployed. I knocked, yelling for him to come and open the door. He comes, opens up, and stands in the doorway wearing an apron, his hands on his hips, “Where have you been? I’ve been slaving over this dinner” he simpered, and then looking at my date, his eyes aghast, he yells, “You brought a WOMAN into our house?” and storms off into the bedroom. Meanwhile, this young girl who just met me is standing there, her mouth agape, not believing the scene. “You guys obviously have some things to work out,” she stammered and ran down the hall to the elevator, never to be seen or heard from again. Meanwhile, my supposed friend is now in hysterics. “You should have seen your faces,” he cackles.

He pulled several other pranks on me as well as our other classmates during our time together, including the occasion when we had a double date for a movie, after which we stopped back at our place for a drink. After a few minutes, he excused himself to go the “boy’s room” while we sat chatting. The walls of the building are very thin, and we could hear the unmistakable noise of a man urinating into the toilet. We politely ignored it for the first minute, looked at each other sheepishly after the second minute, but by the fifth minute, all conversation had stopped, while the noise of liquid emptying continued. Eventually, he came back to the room, grinning, saying “Sorry guys, but I really had to go!” Unknown to me, he had taken the garbage can earlier, filled it up with water, and slowly poured it into the toilet over the course of more than five minutes. While he was entertaining to have around, I felt myself noticeably more relaxed after he moved out to live with his girlfriend.

Having most of the first year medical students share housing definitely provided a bonding experience for our class, and gave support during the very arduous period of intense study and challenges that all freshmen in medical school face.

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Chocolate – The All Consuming Passion


For only the second time in its 90 year history, See’s Candy Stores are temporarily closed due to the threat of Covid-19, and the ignorance of those in government who fail to recognize that the making of chocolate IS an essential industry. Thankfully, we had been given a box of their chocolates by a friend (give us a box of See’s dark chocolate marzipans and you made a friend for life.) Now that our chocolate stash had been exhausted, we are approaching the first stages of withdrawal. Trust me, it’s not a pretty picture! Our only hope is that with the reopening of the economy, we soon will be able to get our chocolate fix. Until then, here are some thoughts I shared with you readers many years ago about chocolate being one of the essential building blocks of life. Enjoy, with a bite of your favorite sweet!

1) Chocolate is a vegetable. How, you ask? Chocolate is derived from cocoa
beans. Beans are a vegetable. Sugar is derived from either sugar CANE
or sugar BEETS. Both are plants, which place them in the vegetable
category. Thus, chocolate is a vegetable.

2) To go one step further, chocolate candy bars also contain milk,
which is dairy. So candy bars are a health food.

3) Chocolate covered raisins, cherries, orange slices and strawberries all
count as fruit, so eat as many as you want.

4) If you’ve got melted chocolate all over your hands, you’re eating it too
slowly.

5) The problem: How to get 2 pounds of chocolate home from the store
in a hot car. The solution: Eat it in the parking lot.

6) Diet tip: Eat a chocolate bar before each meal. It’ll take the
edge off your appetite, and you’ll eat less.

7) If calories are an issue, store your chocolate on top of the
fridge. Calories are afraid of heights, and they will jump out of the
chocolate to protect themselves.

8) If I eat equal amounts of dark chocolate and white chocolate, is
that a balanced diet? Don’t they actually counteract each other?

9) Chocolate has many preservatives. Preservatives make you look
younger. Therefore, you need to eat more chocolate.

10) Put “eat chocolate” at the top of your list of things to do today. That
way, at least you’ll get one thing done.

11) A nice box of chocolates can provide your total daily intake of
calories in one place. Now, isn’t that handy?

12) If you can’t eat all your chocolate, it will keep in the freezer.
But if you can’t eat all your chocolate, what’s wrong with you?

13) If not for chocolate, there would be no need for Spanx.
An entire garment industry would be devastated. You can’t let that happen,
can you?

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Memorial Day


We need Memorial Day, not for the “spectacular sales and savings” nor for opportunity to relax over a three day weekend – we need it to remind us that many have died and suffered for us. If we are to truly honor their memory, then we must attempt to learn something from the results and the consequences of our actions.

 

Before it was a military cemetery, the Arlington Estate belonged to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1864, the federal government seized the 1,100 acre property, using it to bury the Union dead. By doing so, and resettling escaped slaves on the land, Lincoln made explicit the idea that the war was being fought to free the four million enslaved Negroes of the South. In his remarkably concise 272 word speech at Gettysburg was the assurance that the nation would do everything possible to honor the sacrifice of fallen soldiers by working to transform the Declaration of Independence into reality. President Warren Harding speaking at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921 repeated Lincoln’s message: “Our part is to atone for the losses of the heroic dead by making a better Republic for the living.”

 

Anyone who has ever been involved in a shooting war knows that there is no glory or honor involved, regardless of the uniform that’s worn. There is only suffering, fear, disillusionment and death; the creation of nightmares to sear the souls and hollow the eyes of people who have witnessed things no one was ever meant to witness, and who are congratulated as “survivors.” The glorious dead remain dead, leaving behind widows and orphans who strive to find meaning in the void created by the loss of one they loved.

 

I give honor to those who have sacrificed themselves for an ideal of freedom, of liberty.  I despise those who have manipulated and subverted the truth to create fear and loathing in honest citizens in order to gain power, riches and feeding of their own egos. I abhor the jingoistic slogans, propaganda machines, the deliberate obfuscations by which young men and women are sent in harm’s way, and the callous treatment of those whose service we have demanded but whose damaged bodies and psyches are now considered too heavy a burden for our society to carry.

 

By all means – let us take this day to remember the sacrifices of those we have asked to serve us.  Let us look long and hard at the causes for which we commit our military, where we define objectives that have a potential military solution, and make certain that every possible alternative to armed conflict has been utilized. In all our long history, war has never provided the lasting solution to economic or ideological conflict. Finally, let us look at our own behaviors today, and ask, “Are our words and actions making a better Republic for the living, as we keep promising to our heroic dead?”

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The Sunshine Bridge and Louisiana Politics


Having lived in Chicago for eight years during the heyday of Mayor J. Daley and his vote-and-vote often machine politics, I should have been better prepared for the politics of Louisiana when I moved to New Orleans in 1968. However, the brazen, open shenanigans of the local political elite, and the even more surprising acceptance, and even admiration of the average citizen surprised even me. The story that I think best encapsulates Louisiana politics is the story of the Sunshine Bridge.

Back in 1960, a man by the name of Jimmie Davis was governor of Louisiana. You may never have heard of Jimmie Davis, but he was credited for writing the song popular to this day, “You Are My Sunshine”. (In fact, the song was written by a band-mate, Paul Rice, but Jimmie recognized its enduring lyrics and melody, and bought the rights to it for $35, then released it as his own.) Based on this song, along with his performances on Louisiana Hay Ride (a radio show at the time second only to the Grand Ole Opry) and Hollywood cowboy movies, he was twice elected governor of the State. This was decades before Ronald Regan, making Jimmie a groundbreaking figure of the entertainer turned successful politician.

This occurred around the time the Federal government was creating the vast system of Interstate Highways we take for granted today. Two of Jimmie’s financial supporters happened to learn of the plans for the proposed Interstate Highway 10 scheduled to come through Louisiana. They bought two sugar cane fields on either side of the Mississippi River, and persuaded Jimmie to build a multi-lane cantilever bridge connecting the two sides of the River, making it only the second such bridge in the State, the other being in New Orleans. They figured that if the bridge was already built, the Feds were sure to bring the Interstate through their property, raising the value tremendously. Unfortunately for them, the New York Times got hold of this deal, and published several articles regarding government corruption, leading the Feds to build a new bridge at Baton Rouge, with the Interstate bypassing the already built structure located not many miles away. The original bridge, forever after called the Sunshine Bridge, still stands today. Until recently, it was a toll bridge, costing 50 cents to use, connecting the two sugar cane fields.

The Sunshine Bridge is the microcosm of Louisiana politics. If you are in the area, you can drive out to see it. You may want to visit it, not so much for seeing a Bridge to Nowhere, but because at the base of the bridge on one side is Grandma’s Catfish House, which served the best fried catfish and hush puppies in the State, at least when I was there.

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